The Predicament of Divorcing Foreign Service Spouses

What AAFSW is Doing

Every year, Foreign Service spouses reach out to AAFSW for help in a crisis situation, usually during a separation or divorce. These are often foreign-born spouses without a family in the U.S. that could possibly provide them with financial or moral support.

In one recent case, a Foreign Service employee refused to provide any financial support to their spouse unless the spouse signed certain documents, which put this spouse at a financial disadvantage. This spouse remains without financial support from the Foreign Service employee, and struggles to survive with a low-paying job. Fortunately, a generous friend is allowing this struggling spouse to live rent-free for the time being. However, in other cases, which AAFSW has documented over the years, spouses and their children ended up living in shelters or sleeping in their cars. In other cases, because spouses were cut off from having access to bank accounts or their belongings (i.e. in a recent case, one spouse’s belongings are locked up in public storage to which access has been denied), these spouses slept in sleeping bags along with their kids for months. In other cases, Foreign Service officers living overseas use the granted immunity status to avoid being served with papers.

In many cases, the non-employee spouse cannot afford a lawyer and is pressured to accept divorce terms that put her/him in a precarious financial situation. After years of living overseas, with a “catch-as-catch-can” employment record, many spouses find it difficult to get a well-paying job right after a divorce.

The Department of State sends out a cable every year (the most recent being 16 State 137568), which urges divorcing employees to ensure adequate financial resources for the spouses/partners and family to establish themselves in the U.S. or other location. However, divorcing employees often ignore these guidelines without suffering any consequences.

To rectify this, AAFSW, together with sister organizations in the Foreign Service community, has tried to establish a “Code of Ethics” for Foreign Service employees, unfortunately without success.

The Family Liaison Office helps separating spouses who are overseas return to the U.S., but once spouses arrive, FLO is limited in what it can do. FLO provides a useful “Divorce and the Foreign Service” handbook and a list of attorneys, but due to privacy issues it cannot give information on a Foreign Service employee that would be helpful during a divorce. Furthermore, FLO cannot provide any financial help.

The AAFSW Family Crisis Fund, established in 2015, helps pay for emergency expenses such as groceries, utility bills, and partial rent payments. AAFSW members also volunteer their time for things such as driving spouses to appointments with lawyers. Unfortunately, the Family Crisis Fund is too small to help with absolute necessities such as babysitting fees or legal fees – except for an hour or two of consultation. Since late 2016, AAFSW members have joined forces creating the AAFSW Fun For Funds Committee and are doing active fundraising to benefit AAFSW as well as the Family Crisis Fund. AAFSW also welcomes any donation and contribution to the organization to help with raising money for the Family Crisis Fund.

AAFSW will continue to do what it can do help spouses who are going through difficult times with advice, moral support, and in some cases, limited financial support. Spouses who are experiencing a crisis situation are encouraged to contact AAFSW’s Spouses in Transition Coordinator, Karen Villar (, Sheila Switzer, AAFSW Foreign-Born Spouse State Liaison (, and the AAFSW office (

Barbara Reioux, AAFSW Office Manager
Sheila Switzer, AAFSW Program Chair and AAFSW Foreign Born Spouse State Liaison
Karen Villar, former AAFSW Spouses in Transition Coordinator
Dr. Joanna Athanasopoulos Owen, AAFSW President and AAFSW Fun For Funds Chair